Judges Hear Suggestions to Build Trust in Judiciary

Brian Kelly (@brpkelly)

ST. LOUIS (KMOX) – Saying it’s the first time in Missouri that judges came down from the bench to hear what people want, two St. Louis Circuit Court judges held a “listening session” Monday to hear suggestions on how the justice system can gain the public’s trust.

Judge Jimmie Edwards told the nearly two dozen activists, law students, professors and members of the public that it was not a venting session, but, “a conversation about ideas and solutions.”

He noted that the other judge, newly appointed Jason Sengheiser, is white, saying that optics matter.

For over two hours, many in the gathering spoke about issues involving the police. They called for more accountability and training, and the need for mental evaluation for officers, who in the words of St. Louis University Criminologist Norman White, “have one of the toughest jobs.”

There were calls for officers to live in the neighborhoods they patrol and to be more involved in those communities.

Many stressed the need for more educational opportunities for youth and youth outreach.

While noting that the courts have little to do with those issues, in an exclusive interview, Edwards said two suggestions involving the courts stood out.

No. 1: That judicial rulings be monitored for language that signals implicit bias. “What we say can have impact on trust and confidence,” Edwards says. “I think we all know that. But, when a young person out of our city raises that as a concern, I think we should take a look at that. We should evaluate how we say things. We should evaluate what we do, and then try to render orders that are more objective, that are more just and more equitable.”

No. 2: Bail reform. City Public Defender Mary Fox told the courtroom that of 110 recent cases in which defendants spent up to three years in jail on bond, only 29 were found guilty, 10 were found guilty as charged and 52 were dismissed.

“It embarrasses all of us,” Edwards says, “when they sit there and over 50 percent are eventually released. That’s just simply not right. That’s not just, and that’s not what judges stand for.”

Sengheiser agrees. “There is an opportunity there to use other methods. Other cities have used other methods to ensure people appear at trial, and I think that’s something we need to explore.”

Fox also suggested that there be more consideration at the front end of a case — why are the charges being filed in the first place? Does the person being charged need to stay in jail until the trial?

St. Louis Circuit Attorney Kim Gardner attended, but declined to comment.

Edwards, who says he scheduled the listening session with the help of activist Anthony Shahid, was pleased with the dialogue.

“These folk that are here – that would otherwise be out on the street protesting and be in large crowds and large voices – they came here. They were articulate. They were respectful, and I believe that because of that we are compelled to listen.”

Edwards says he will pass along today’s comments to law enforcement, city officials, the National Center of State Courts and the Missouri and U.S. Supreme Courts.

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